News Column

McCarthy, anti-heroes were hot in 2013 summer films

August 25, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 25--It's still hot outside, but summer's over at the movies.

Hollywood's blockbuster rollout ended a few weeks ago with "Elysium." The character dramas "The Spectacular Now" and Lee Daniels' "The Butler" still have juice, but most films in theaters this weekend are filling space before the prestigious fall films arrive.

So it's a good time to reflect on the 2013 summer movie season by looking at what lessons can be gleaned from it, appreciating its complex protagonists and considering what it all will mean come awards season.

The focus here is on quality, not money. Box-office talk too often dominates discussion of summer movies. The good movies of summer 2013 -- and there are many -- deserve one more chance to shine before the influx of fall movies wipes them from our memories.

Keeping it simple

The season's most satisfying blockbusters, "World War Z," "Pacific Rim" and "Elysium," bucked the years-long trend of summer action films offering too many bangs for moviegoers' bucks.

These films took on zombies, giant Japanese aliens and a sleek future-world space station, respectively, but did not make too many leaps beyond those.

They offered clear stories free of the convolutions and extra battle scenes that cluttered "Iron Man 3" and "Man of Steel." The makers of "World War Z" even scrapped the movie's original, all-out action climax for a quieter one -- an expensive yet admirable decision.

Sun, fun and anti-heroes

Two of summer's most intriguing characters, Cate Blanchett's fallen socialite Jasmine in "Blue Jasmine" and Matthew McConaughey's titular outlaw in "Mud," sweat a lot.

In Mud's case, it's partly environmental, since he lives outdoors on a Mississippi River island. But most of Mud's and Jasmine's perspiration comes from the exertion required in trying to justify dubious decisions.

Mud hides out after committing a crime, enlisting the help of two boys who might be endangering themselves to assist him. It's not the behavior of a responsible adult. But McConaughey renders Mud's desperation so vivid that you feel for him.

Blanchett's snobby Jasmine is harder to root for, because she denies her part in the financial misdeeds of her Madoff-like husband (Alec Baldwin). But you wish she'd pull it together for the sake of the kind sister (Sally Hawkins) who takes her in. Plus, Blanchett's acting amazes: she lets Jasmine's haughtiness, fear and delusions play on her face.

These actors and films need not work too hard to make cases for their characters. We are accustomed to watching, and often liking, highly flawed lead characters on cable's "The Sopranos," "Dexter" and "Breaking Bad."

Anti-heroic, or at least highly complicated, screen protagonists have been common since the 1950s, said Roberto Pomo, a film studies professor at California State University, Sacramento. After the horrors of two world wars, "'Tragedy' took on different meaning" for audiences, Pomo said.

Aristotle's tragic hero, virtuous and noble and befallen by circumstance, no longer held the same power. Audiences became more interested in characters at their level, not above them. Characters' psychological complexities, and their struggles with imposed societal norms, took the fore, Pomo said.

Anti-heroes always have fueled American independent cinema. Paul Thomas Anderson films ("There Will Be Blood," "The Master") are lousy with them. But their presence in the popcorn season remains uncommon enough to be noteworthy when it happens.

If you stretch the definition of screen anti-hero past its association with cable's criminals to cover less-pathological characters, summer 2013 is especially noteworthy.

Three of the summer's best films -- "Before Midnight," "Fruitvale Station" and "The Spectacular Now" -- offer protagonists who never lose audience sympathy but often test it.

Julie Delpy's prickly "Midnight" character, Celine, undercuts her longtime partner (Ethan Hawke) so often she appears to be daring him to leave her. Viewers have followed and mostly loved her character through three "Before" movies and know this is just one color of her personality.

Sutter, the high school senior played by Miles Teller in "Spectacular," imperils himself and others with his drinking and recklessness. Sutter's a smart kid who should apply to college and get his head on straight. But he's not progressing, and that's partly because a childhood without a father and with a mother who worked constantly did not equip him especially well.

Viewers relate to characters who reject convention and recognize the "fallacy that tells us the only way to succeed" is by following the American Dream model, Pomo said. They identify with characters who poke holes in the notion that that dream is availed equally to all -- a concept that's especially hard to swallow given the shaky economy of the past several years.

In "Fruitvale," which tracks the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old killed in 2009 by a BART police officer, Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is trying to turn himself around after a youth that included drug dealing and incarceration.

Pomo, who was "Fruitvale" director Ryan Coogler's professor at Sacramento State, said the movie presents Oscar as a "romantic character" trying to be a better man, for his daughter and girlfriend. But the realities of past behavior keep bubbling up. Though Oscar wants to help support his family, being late to work has cost him his job. When he considers dealing drugs to make ends meet, the audience understands the instinct, to a degree. Oscar appears to lack "the right social tools to be able to enter the middle class," Pomo said.

But the anti-heroic or complicated character has more to offer than rebellion and struggle. Small triumphs can be instructive.

Pomo points to a scene in which Coogler exercised poetic license by showing Oscar staring out at San Francisco Bay, contemplating whether he should sell the bag of marijuana he's holding.

"All of us who see this movie and are facing our own psychological demons -- when we watch his character throw the grass into the bay, we think, 'If he can do it, we can do it,'" Pomo said.

Summer is the new fall?

This summer seems to have generated an unusual number of awards-caliber performances: McConaughey in "Mud"; Jordan in "Fruitvale"; Blanchett in "Jasmine"; Delpy in "Midnight"; Greta Gerwig as a foundering post-collegiate dance hopeful in "Frances Ha"; Oprah Winfrey as the frustrated wife of a White House butler in "The Butler."

But summer-film performances often seem especially promising and wonderful just before September's highly influential Toronto International Film Festival shows its Oscar-bait films and renders most of what happened in summer obsolete. Summer 2013 is on par with most summers, awards-watch-wise, Yahoo! Movies columnist and Oscar prognosticator Thelma Adams said.

At this point, only Blanchett and Winfrey look like sure-fire Oscar nominees, Adams said. A nod for Jordan is "likely," Adams said. She added that McConaughey's "Mud" performance will factor during awards season, but mostly to bolster his reputation when his true Oscar gambit, December's "Dallas Buyers Club," comes out. In "Dallas," McConaughey plays a real-life 1980s electrician who contracted HIV and then discovered a prime business opportunity in black-market HIV drug sales.

Delpy and her "Midnight" co-writers Hawke and Richard Linklater (who also directed) probably will be nominated for their original screenplay, Adams said, as they were for 2004's "Before Sunset."

A Delpy acting nod looks unlikely, Adams said. "I love Julie Delpy, but I think people get irritated and annoyed by her character."

Sacramento native Gerwig's reality-avoiding Frances, a lovable figure to some viewers but not all, might be a hard sell as well, Adams said. That's partly because "Frances Ha," released in May, seems to have lost much of its momentum. To Adams' regret.

"I cannot understand a universe where 'Frances Ha' is not considered fresher than 'Blue Jasmine,'" Adams said.

Melissa McCarthy = success

"Bridesmaids" supposedly opened doors for comedies starring women. But few walked through them to success. July's "Girl Most Likely" featured Kristen Wiig's first starring role since "Bridesmaids." But it was panned by critics and ignored by audiences. Aubrey Plaza's "The To-Do List" also is a bust.

"Bridesmaids's" Melissa McCarthy, by contrast, has parlayed her Oscar-nominated performance in "Bridesmaids" into her current status as a bona fide movie star. She followed her oddball character Megan with two different but no less captivating weirdos: a free-spending criminal in February's "Identity Thief" and a rules-defying gonzo police detective in June's "The Heat."

"Thief" generated $134 million at the U.S. box office. "The Heat" is at $155 million. I broach the vulgar topic of money only because McCarthy is so clearly personally responsible for much of her 2013 films' impressive take. In both cases, her performance elevated her material. Neither "Thief," which co-starred the likable but not hugely bankable Jason Bateman, nor "Heat," which paired McCarthy with Sandra Bullock -- a star beloved by the public, but not $155 million worth of beloved in a raunchy, potentially Heartland-alienating R-rated film -- would have brought so much bank without the word-of-mouth appeal of McCarthy's fearless, committed performances.

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